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AGU 2009: Food for thought

Harvey Leifert

SAN FRANCISCO—If it’s December, it’s the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. For the 42nd consecutive year, AGU has returned here, and each year more scientists participate, descending on the city from all around the world. It is the must meeting for researchers in Earth and space science, and especially for those studying climate change.

Joining the 16,000 scientists expected this year are some 150 science writers—reporters and editors, along with public information officers from universities, government agencies, and other scientific societies. I am attending my 12th Fall Meeting and my third as a freelance writer. (Before that, I was AGU’s public information manager.)

Much has changed since my first AGU meeting, in 1998. A search of the abstracts for that meeting turns up 20 that contain the phrase “global climate change.” By 2008, the number was up to 101. Obviously, not all climate-related presentations contain that phrase, but it is probably not far off the mark to say that climate change has increased fivefold as a topic of AGU presentations over the past decade. During this week, I will be reporting here on some of this year’s presentations, ones that are important, or quirky, or just catch my eye.


As usual, the kickoff for science writers was a Sunday field trip, this time to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. A leading research institution, the Academy is over 150 years old, but has occupied its new home for just over a year. It claims to be the only place in the world that houses a museum, aquarium, planetarium, and research and education facilities all under one roof.

And what a roof! Designed by award-winning architect Rienzo Piano, the massive building is capped with a living green roof, featuring vegetation-covered domes that echo the surrounding San Francisco hills and provide light and climate control to the exhibition areas below. The entire complex is rated LEED Platinum—the top grade in environmental friendliness.

Climate change is the topic of an imaginative exhibition on the museum’s main level, combining large in-your-face statements (“Global warming should be called ocean warming, because 80% of the added heat resides in the ocean”), interactive displays, and more traditional exhibits. One of the most popular spots during our visit was the Carbon Café, where youngsters and their parents were busy checking the comparative carbon emissions of various foods, both favorites and not-so-favorites.

Grilled chicken breast, they learned, earns three marks out of a possible five, the mid-grade for emissions, while non-seasonal grilled vegetables and cheese pizza receive two marks each, and local, seasonal fruit salad comes in with one mark, the best score. The worst food for emissions (five marks) is fast food hamburgers, where industrial farms that produce the beef are just the first step in a long chain of high carbon emissions.

All in all, food for thought, literally, and a good start to the AGU meeting. More tomorrow.

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